Antiquated operations at the Pasco Clerk of the Circuit Court's Office began to change five years ago when Jed Pittman hired Paula O'Neil away from Pasco County's Community Services Division. O'Neil, with the title of strategic planner, began reshaping the way the clerk's office did business.
Pittman is retiring after 32 years as clerk and O'Neil, a 52-year-old Republican who is now the chief deputy, is the logical choice to succeed him and to continue the modernization and a more efficient operation.
Since O'Neil's arrival, the clerk's office, which had been slow to embrace technology, has put 9-million pages of officially recorded documents on the Internet. It is now one of only four clerk's offices in the state to accept electronic court filings. It allows motorists to pay traffic tickets online, and, most recently, made online searches of court dockets available to the public. A department-by-department review brought better efficiency that is demonstrated by reducing the wait to pay a traffic ticket at the West Pasco Government Center from 23 minutes to less than five. These are significant improvements of office procedures, some of which hadn't been changed since Pittman took office in 1976.
O'Neil's opponent is Democrat Robert N. Altman, 52, a New Port Richey lawyer specializing in wills, trusts and estates who ran unsuccessfully against Pittman in 2004. Altman is the brother of former County Commissioner and New Port Richey Mayor Peter Altman.
Robert Altman touts his legal experience as a top asset and said he was motivated again to run for clerk because he found the office's probate division inefficient, characterized the civil division as a black hole into which pleadings disappear and said poor working conditions in the clerk's office lead to high staff turnover and poor productivity. Yet he offers only anecdotal evidence of the alleged mismanagement and by the conclusion of an interview acknowledged he didn't campaign aggressively against Pittman four years ago because the incumbent was doing a reasonably good job as clerk.
Well, which is it? There is no doubt that Pittman's performance had shortcomings but we have seen no evidence that O'Neil will repeat the same mistakes. Altman also undermines his own stated push for even greater electronic access when his own campaign Web site was slow to materialize and now is nothing more than an image of a political sign.
The office has a voluminous workload, much of which, we suspect, escapes the attention of the general public. Last year, the office handled 129,000 court cases; staffed 140,000 court hearings; summoned 30,000 jurors; handled 2.9-million court documents, including 170,000 subpoenas, summonses and notices; processed 10,000 passports; transferred 611,000 court files and recorded 200,000 official documents. The clerk must be custodian of county funds, including more than a half-billion dollars in investments; record deeds; be clerk to both the county and the court system; and serve as auditor of the county's nearly billion-dollar budget.
O'Neil essentially has been running the operation — overseeing some 400 employees and a $28-million budget — because of Pittman's poor health and his acknowledged infrequent visits to the office. O'Neil already has demonstrated a work ethic superior to her boss' and should be allowed to assume the top job.
Voters should elect Republican Paula O'Neil as Pasco Clerk of the Circuit Court on Nov. 4.